Wagon Wheels Simulation


Type of Initiative:  Conflict Scenario and Role Play

Source: Noam Ebner and Yael Efron, Tachlit Mediation Center, Jerusalem

Published in:   Setting the Conflict Compass, by Michelle Cummings with Mike Anderson

Number of Roles: 3–4 (2 parties, 1–2 mediators)

Set-up and Preparation Time: 20 mins.

Running Time: 45–60 mins.

Debrief Time: 45 mins

Level: Basic to Intermediate

Law or Legal Analysis: Not required. Depending on the setting, participants may choose to apply their general knowledge in contract law or small-claims court outcomes; however, the simulation/game does not require such background knowledge.

Role Assignment: Divide the group into groups of three (or four, if using co-mediation).  If you are left with an odd student out, assign him/her as an observer.  Assign one student to serve in each role, and hand out the following material:

Owners of Pizzarino’s: General Information, Instructions for the Owners of Pizzarino’s

Customer: General Information, Instructions for the Customer

Mediator: General Information, Instructions for the Mediator

Gender Issues in Role Assignment—Variations: The simulation/game’s story depicts a female customer and a male proprietor. Here are three possibilities for role assignment:

  1. Assign roles randomly, as you might in any other simulation/game. Make sure every participant knows who his opposite is, and have them rewrite their role into their own gender, if necessary. For example, a male playing the role of the customer should change the story to revolve around a party he threw for his wife, a long-time regular at Pizzaroni’s.   
  2. Assign male and female participants to the male- and female-written roles, accordingly (especially suitable if you intend to discuss the topic of gender in negotiation and mediation).
  3. Assign male and female participants into roles designed for the opposite gender, and have them stick to the roles; in other words—a male participant will be playing a female customer (another way to address the same issue). 

Room Set-Up: As you will have several groups working at once, try and space them out in different corners of the room, or use an adjacent room if available.

Student Instructions: Instruct participants to read their information carefully, and try and flesh out their instructions with their own knowledge, emotions, and experience.  Explain that through their “owning” of the role in this manner, the simulation will not only become more lifelike, it will also enable them to understand what parties to conflict truly experience. The resulting insights will, therefore, be highly transferable to real-life situations.  Instruct participants to begin as soon as they feel prepared.

Wagon Wheels

General Information

The proprietor of Pizzarino’s, a popular neighborhood pizza parlor, received a call from the wife of a long-time customer, ordering 20 Wagon Wheel Pizza Pies for the birthday party she was planning for her husband.

On the evening of the party, the pizza delivery didn’t meet the customer’s expectations, and an encounter she had with the owners of Pizzaroni’s the next day left both parties angry.

The two have agreed to attempt to settle their differences with the assistance of a representative of a local community mediation center.


Instructions for the Customer

Your husband just turned 35! This year’s celebration had to be special, and you decided to throw a surprise party for him in your home.  Your husband had once commented that he’d never had a surprise party, and you wanted this one to be perfect.  When the guest list passed 60 people, you decided to have the affair partially catered—and you knew just where to order the food …

Your husband loves pizza from Pizzarino’s, the neighborhood pizza parlor.  He eats there two or three times a week, always ordering pizza with extra cheese, onion topping, and a spoonful of Pizzarino’s special garlic sauce.  He has often tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain the sauce’s recipe from the owner of Pizzarino’s, who always turned him down with a smile, explaining that his grandmother had sworn him to secrecy.  Although you aren’t crazy about pizza, you have often accompanied your husband to Pizzarino’s and were always impressed by the friendly atmosphere and by how they treated your husband as a special customer.  Nothing would make him happier than a surprise pizza party.

It seems to you as if you didn’t do anything that week but work on the party.  Timing was crucial.  You double-checked that every guest knew exactly when to arrive.  On the day of the party, you cleaned the house and set it up for the party.  You enlisted John, your husband’s best friend, to keep him out of the house all evening, and to make sure they returned home between 21:45 and 22:00.  Guests would be invited for 21:30, and you planned to order the pizza to arrive at 22:30.  That afternoon, you called the owner of Pizzarino’s, told him about your husband’s party, and asked if he could supply the food you needed.  He said he would be happy to, and you ordered 20 of his huge specialty Wagon Wheel Pizza Pies, with extra cheese and onion topping as well as a jar of his special garlic sauce.  You agreed on a price of $500.  The owner of Pizzarino’s suggested the delivery arrive at 22:15, as the restaurant closes every day at 22:30, and you agreed.

That night, the house filled up quickly, and at 21:50 you received a text message from John saying they would arrive in a few minutes.  At 22:00 exactly, there was a knock on the door. Someone turned the lights out, and when the door opened, everybody shouted “Surprise”—certainly surprising the two young men standing outside trying to juggle 20 pizza boxes.  You began to protest that it was too early, and that they shouldn’t be here when you heard your husband’s voice from down the stairs, saying “Can you smell that pizza? I bet my wife ordered us dinner!”  Your guests were so busy trying to unload the deliverymen and get everything into the kitchen that nobody noticed your husband standing in the doorway, looking around at the confusion.  A couple of minutes passed before someone remembered to tentatively say “Surprise…”

This turned out to be only the first of the evening’s disappointments.  The pizzas delivered were barely warm, and most had olive topping on them, which your husband can’t stand.  When you asked the deliverymen about the garlic sauce, they shrugged and said it wasn’t on their delivery form, so they hadn’t brought any; they offered you little bags of oregano instead.  You angrily called Pizzaroni’s.  The owner told you there was nothing he could do about the pizzas—the ovens were shut down for the night, and it would take an hour for them to heat up again.  He promised to stop by after closing to bring you the garlic sauce, and indeed arrived twenty minutes later with two jars.  You were busy trying to keep the party alive, and the two of you agreed to talk it over the next day.  All evening you couldn’t shake your angry feelings, and it seemed that the refreshments were a main topic of conversation at the party—for the wrong reasons.

Entering Pizzaroni’s the next day, you complained that the faulty delivery ruined the party.   The owner gave some offhanded apology, something like “Sorry, you know how these things are.”  You told him that wasn’t enough, but he just continued serving pizza to customers in the restaurant, and you got the feeling he was trying to downplay the whole matter.  When he handed you the bill for $500, you stared at him in shock.  You told him you had no intention of paying for the bad service and product you received.  To quiet you down, he offered to give you a $20 discount; you told him you wanted compensation for the ruined party.  At some point you couldn’t take it any longer, and left the restaurant.

You considered actually suing Pizzarino’s in small-claims court for the damage he caused, but you followed a friend’s suggestion to contact the local community mediation center first.  They offered to contact the restaurant’s owner and set up a meeting between the two of you.  You’re not sure you can control your anger in the presence of the owner of Pizzarino’s, but you agree to the meeting.  Consider your interests in this situation, and what it is you want to achieve; you are about to walk into the mediation room.


Instructions for the Owners of Pizzarino’s

You own and operate Pizzarino’s, a successful neighborhood pizza parlor.  You attribute your success to two main factors: establishing a sense of community through warm personal connections with your customers, and your grandmother’s secret recipes for pomadoro sauce and crushed garlic in olive oil and spices.

Last week you had a particularly busy evening at the store.  Every couple of minutes the phone rang with a new order, and your deliverymen were taking three or four different orders with them every time they left the store.  You received a call from a customer, requesting 20 of your gigantic specialty Wagon Wheel Pizza Pies for her husband’s birthday party later in the evening.  You knew this would be a hard order to cope with on a night as crazy as this one, but you pride yourself on never turning a customer down if you can help it.  In particular, you don’t want to turn down this customer—her husband is one of your regulars, coming in a couple of nights a week.  She asked that the pizzas be delivered at 22:30 exactly.  As this is your closing time, you suggested delivery take place a little earlier, in case there were any problems.  She also requested some of your garlic sauce, and you promised to include it.  Sometimes you think her husband comes for the garlic sauce and orders pizza just as an excuse or a platform for it.  That’s fine by you, as you enjoy his company in the shop.  You agreed on a price of $500, slicing 10% off the usual price without even mentioning it and not charging for the delivery.

At about 22:00 your deliverymen were absolutely exhausted and preparing for their last round of deliveries—the large order and two smaller ones.  After loading the pizzas into a small van you use for large deliveries, they left.  About 15 minutes later, after you had shut down the ovens and were wiping down the counters and tables, you received an angry phone call from the customer, complaining that the delivery was too early.  You thought it had been timed just as you had agreed, but she had already moved on to complain the pizzas were cold and that there was no garlic sauce.  The ovens take an hour to heat up, so there was nothing to be done about the pizzas, but you promised to come by after you closed up with garlic sauce.  You closed a few minutes early and hurried over with a couple of large jars—a special gesture for a special customer.  Entering the house, you found your customer rushing about with trays in her hand.  You handed her the sauce with an apology, but she seemed to be under a lot of pressure and suggested you talk about everything tomorrow.  You asked her to say happy birthday to the birthday boy and went home.

The next day, just as the restaurant was filling up with your early-afternoon lunch crowd, the customer walked in.  You were busy with the customers and hoped she wouldn’t make a fuss, but she was very accusatory and blamed you loudly for ruining her party.  People were turning to stare, so you tried to quiet her down by leading her over to the counter, away from the customers, and taking out the bill for the order.  You told her you were sorry and offered to take $20 off the price to make up for whatever went wrong, but then she went ballistic, shouting that she wouldn’t pay you anything and that she wanted compensation for her ruined party.  You tried to reply, but at this point she turned and walked out of the restaurant, slamming the door behind her.  Conversation seemed muted in the restaurant for the next few minutes, and you thought a few people finished their food rather quickly and left.

You asked your deliverymen for their side of the story.  They said they didn’t know exactly what time they had shown up at the party, but that even if they had come early, wasn’t that better than being late (which, as all pizza deliverymen know, is what people always complain about)?  They didn’t know they had to show up at a precise moment, so they had just worked it into their rounds. You never keep your old order slips, so you can’t check if anything might have gotten mixed up; however, you’ve been in this business for years now, and rarely, if ever, send out a faulty order.

 A couple of days later, you received a call from someone representing the neighborhood community mediation center.  You hadn’t known this existed, or exactly what mediation is, but you do understand that there will be a chance for you to try and talk it out with your customer and to collect the money you are owed; you agreed to participate in a session with the customer.

Consider your interests in this situation, and what you want to achieve; you are about to walk into the mediation room.

Wagon Wheels

Instructions for the Mediator

You are a volunteer mediator at a community mediation center.  The mediation center has been operating for about ten years and has successfully handled many disputes.  The center prides itself on accessibility, both geographically and financially; parties are requested to voluntarily contribute $25 apiece to the center for handling their dispute, regardless of its financial value, or how much time and effort reaching agreement takes.  You haven’t been with the center for long and have only mediated a few cases so far.

You have been assigned a case scheduled to begin today. At first, the names meant nothing to you, but after rereading the scant information you were given, you realized that one of the parties is the owners of Pizzaroni’s, and the claim has to do with faulty service or delivery.

While you have no recollection of Pizzarino’s owners, you certainly remember the place; although not a regular, you must have stopped there after work a half-dozen times over the past couple of years. Good pizza, great garlic sauce, always good music on.

You’re awaiting the parties in the mediation room.  When you hear them in the waiting room, go out and greet them.  Use the time you have until the parties arrive to prepare yourself and the room and to map out a game plan. Good luck!

Wagon Wheels

Teaching Notes

Educational Overview and Possible Uses

The Wagon Wheels simulation/game is an educational tool for mediation training. Designed for use at the beginner to intermediate level, the background information places participants in a setting whose elements are familiar from everyday life: a favorite restaurant and a party turned sour. The facts are relatively simple, with a few ambiguities planted in the participants’ information in order to allow them to construct separate and conflicting factual “truths.”  Emotional issues such as mutual insult and shattered expectations add both to the situation’s complexity as well as to the range of different levels on which the conflict can be managed. Finally, a powerful mutual interest in a positive future relationship allows mediators to practice helping parties to shift from focusing on the past to orientating on the future.

The relatively simple factual base has the additional advantage of allowing mediation to focus on the process and not on remembering details, thus laying the groundwork for a successful and confidence-building experience in process management. 

Due to the possibility to address the conflict on the relational, contractual, financial, or other levels, this simulation/game is suitable for mediation training oriented towards either a problem-solving or a transformative approach.

Additionally, the simulation/game is suitable for triggering discussion on gender differences in negotiation and mediation. It does this in a relatively subtle manner (as opposed to a simulation/game directly pitting a husband and wife against each other in a divorce case, for example). If used for this purpose, it is recommended to set the stage as thoroughly as possible through suitable role assignment (see “Logistics”), mediator assignment (consider employing co-mediation by a male-female team), etc.

Debriefing Topics

Begin the debrief by asking how many of the groups reached agreement; ask a couple of groups for the main points of their agreements (this is done mainly to allow participants still engrossed in the game to join the group, others to vent a bit, and to stress in general the joint-but-separate experience of the groups, transforming them back into one large learning group).

Provided are some recommendations for possible managing of the debrief session; this is not in any way meant to provide an exhaustive list of questions or discussion themes.

Early Training-Stage Debrief

  1. Did the mediators explain the process to the parties in a clear manner? How did this affect the process?
  2. What did the mediators do in order to help parties get all the necessary information on the table?
  3. Were the mediators successful in building an atmosphere of trust around the table?? How did they do this (or what could they have done, but did not)?
  4. How did the mediators react in challenging situations (such as: parties interrupting each other, parties attacking each other, parties attacking the mediators, etc.)?
  5. Do the parties feel that the mediators acted in a neutral and impartial manner?  Did the mediators deal explicitly with issues of neutrality and impartiality?  Can the mediators comment on ways in which they felt parties were trying to win them over to their side?
  6. Through what general frame did the mediation process address the issue (for example: a consumerism issue, an argument about money, disappointment, etc.)? Did this frame prove a productive one in terms of allowing parties to come to grips with the past and look ahead to the future or in terms of their relationship with one another?
  7. Did the mediators’ feelings of familiarity with Pizzaroni’s affect the way they handled the case? How?
  8. What do the mediators view as the largest obstacle they had to face during this simulation?


Intermediate Training-Stage Debrief

  1. Do the mediators feel they managed the process “by the book”—moving from one stage of the model they learned to the next in a conscious and controlled manner?  Do they feel that the structured process they tried to manage got taken away from them every so often?  How did they react?
  2. Do the parties feel that their relationship shifted somehow at different stages of the mediation?  What was the mediator’s role in bringing this about (if any)?  What did the mediators do in order to help parties face their problem constructively?
  3. Did the conversation focus on the defined problem (payment for pizzas), or did the topic widen to include different relational issues? What was the mediators’ role in the parties’ adoption of this narrower or wider focus?
  4. How did the process of problem solving and searching for options begin?  Did the mediators take an active role in generating or evaluating options for agreement?  What effect did this have on the process?  What might have been done differently?
  5. What effect did the “absent” party (the spouse / regular customer at Pizzaroni’s) have on the conversation? Did the mediators attempt to focus the parties on their common interest in working things out for this party’s sake? Did this work, or did it backfire in anyway?
  6. Did the search for options (or the final agreement) focus on the elements that were very much on the table (e.g., a discount on the balance owed), or were attempts made to expand the pie?  What was the mediators’ role in this?


Gender Issues

  1. Did it appear to the mediators that there was a gap in the parties’ approaches to the conflict —one being cooperative and seeking to solve the problem jointly, and the other being of a more competitive nature? What do the parties feel about this?
  2. Would the parties say that part of the dispute arose or persisted simply because the other party, from the opposite gender, couldn’t comprehend what was bothering them?
  3. Did the parties—overtly or subtly—attempt to co-opt a mediator of the same gender as themselves?
  4. Did the mediators find it easier to connect with parties of the same gender as themselves?
  5. Did the parties attempt to use the mediators in order to impose any type of thinking/dynamic / focus on the other?
  6. Did the mediators attempt to utilize a gender-based connection with a party in order to achieve anything (such as a particular outcome, a particular way of framing or of thinking, etc.)?

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